The residents of Waterloo, Iowa, were surprised to find a 36-foot airship in their midst in April 1897. Constructed of canvas and wood and fitted out with “compressors and generators,” the ship was attended by several “operators” who told the townspeople that they had come from San Francisco. Five thousand Iowans surrounded the machine, but the men forbade them “to inspect the machinery, and any attempt to cross the rope fence … was met with an order to stay out.” When one of the “crew” said that “one man had fallen overboard just before landing,” the townspeople organized a party to search the river for him when they realized that “the entire affair was a joke.” (Des Moines Leader, April 11, 1897)
A rash of airship sightings swept the western United States that month. If the pilots were aliens, they had some endearingly quaint technology — here’s an account from the Houston Daily Post:
Merkel, Texas, April 26. Some parties returning from church last night noticed a heavy object dragging along with a rope attached. They followed it until in crossing the railroad it caught on a rail. On looking up they saw what they supposed was the airship. It was not near enough to get an idea of the dimensions. A light could be seen protruding from several windows; one bright light in front like the headlight of a locomotive. After some ten minutes a man was seen descending the rope; he came near enough to be plainly seen. He wore a light blue sailor suit, was small in size. He stopped when he discovered parties at the anchor and cut the ropes below him and sailed off in a northeast direction. The anchor is now on exhibition at the blacksmith shop of Elliott and Miller and is attracting the attention of hundreds of people.
Feeling mischievous in 1874, Nevada journalist Dan De Quille invented the story of Jonathan Newhouse, “a man of considerable inventive genius” who waded into Death Valley wearing “solar armor,” essentially a suit made of sponge that was wetted continually from an india-rubber sack. “Thus, by the evaporation of the moisture in the armor, it was calculated might be produced almost any degree of cold.”
De Quille published a deadpan report of the tragic outcome in the Territorial Enterprise of July 2: Newhouse’s corpse was found 20 miles inside the desert, “dead and frozen stiff.” “His beard was covered with frost and — though the noonday sun poured down its fiercest rays — an icicle over a foot in length hung from his nose. There he had perished miserably, because his armor had worked but too well, and because it was laced up behind where he could not reach the fastenings.”
Amazingly, even in the heyday of newspaper hoaxes this was largely taken seriously. Scientific American reported it without comment, and London’s Daily Telegraph wrote only that “we should require some additional confirmation before we unhesitatingly accept it.”
De Quille obliged, reporting that Newhouse’s carpet-sack had been found to contain a collection of chemicals that the inventor had apparently combined into “some frigorific mixture.” Apparently he had been wetting the suit with this, not with water, and had inadvertently drenched himself with it while trying to unlace the suit. Whether this satisfied the Telegraph is unclear — they never responded.
In 1873, Lewis Carroll borrowed the travel diary of his child-friend Ella Monier-Williams, with the understanding that he would show it to no one. He returned it with this letter:
My dear Ella,
I return your book with many thanks; you will be wondering why I kept it so long. I understand, from what you said about it, that you have no idea of publishing any of it yourself, and hope you will not be annoyed at my sending three short chapters of extracts from it, to be published in The Monthly Packet. I have not given any names in full, nor put any more definite title to it than simply ‘Ella’s Diary, or The Experiences of an Oxford Professor’s Daughter, during a Month of Foreign Travel.’
I will faithfully hand over to you any money I may receive on account of it, from Miss Yonge, the editor of The Monthly Packet.
Your affect. friend,
Ella thought he was joking, and wrote to tell him so, but he replied:
I grieve to tell you that every word of my letter was strictly true. I will now tell you more — that Miss Yonge has not declined the MS., but she will not give more than a guinea a chapter. Will that be enough?
“This second letter succeeded in taking me in, and with childish pleasure I wrote and said I did not quite understand how it was my journal could be worth printing, but expressed my pleasure. I then received this letter:–”
My dear Ella,
I’m afraid I have hoaxed you too much. But it really was true. I ‘hoped you wouldn’t be annoyed at my etc.’ for the very good reason that I hadn’t done it. And I gave no other title than ‘Ella’s Diary,’ nor did I give that title. Miss Yonge hasn’t declined it — because she hasn’t seen it. And I need hardly explain that she hasn’t given more than three guineas!
Not for three hundred guineas would I have shown it to any one — after I had promised you I wouldn’t.
Two phantom towns appeared on Michigan’s official state map in 1978. Their names, Goblu and Beatosu, showed pretty clearly that the culprit was a University of Michigan graduate, and state highway commission chairman Peter Fletcher admitted to asking a cartographer to add them. A fellow UM alum had teased him that the Mackinac bridge was painted green and white, the colors of rival Michigan State, and Fletcher had found a surreptitious way to support his alma mater.
Fletcher noted in a 2008 interview that he took care to place the fake towns in Ohio, safely outside Michigan state lines. “We have no legal liability for anything taking place in that intellectual swamp south of Monroe,” he said.
“A more personal example of creative cartography is Mount Richard, which in the early 1970s suddenly appeared on the continental divide on a county map prepared in Boulder, Colorado,” writes Mark Monmonier in How to Lie With Maps (1991). “Believed to be the work of Richard Ciacci, a draftsman in the public works department, Mount Richard was not discovered for two years. Such pranks raise questions about the extent of yet-undetected mischief by mapmakers reaching for geographic immortality.”
In 1996, in order to demonstrate the undiscerning trendiness of postmodernism, NYU physicist Alan Sokal submitted an article “liberally salted with nonsense” to the academic journal Social Text:
As Althusser rightly commented, ‘Lacan finally gives Freud’s thinking the scientific concepts that it requires.’ More recently, Lacan’s topologie du sujet has been applied fruitfully to cinema criticism and to the psychoanalysis of AIDS. In mathematical terms, Lacan is here pointing out that the first homology group of the sphere is trivial, while those of the other surfaces are profound; and this homology is linked with the connectedness or disconnectedness of the surface after one or more cuts.
It was published even though Sokal refused to make any changes.
In 2005, MIT student Jeremy Stribling submitted a paper of computer-generated gibberish to the technology conference WMSCI:
One must understand our network configuration to grasp the genesis of our results. We ran a deployment on the NSA’s planetary-scale overlay network to disprove the mutually largescale behavior of exhaustive archetypes. First, we halved the effective optical drive space of our mobile telephones to better understand the median latency of our desktop machines. This step flies in the face of conventional wisdom, but is instrumental to our results.
It was accepted when none of three reviewers rejected it.
French twins Igor and Grichka Bogdanov insist that their papers on the Big Bang are genuine contributions to physical cosmology, but mathematician John Baez calls them “a mishmash of superficially plausible sentences containing the right buzzwords in approximately the right order.” That battle is still raging.
From the London Times, July 4, 1874, an account of an attack by a giant squid on the schooner Pearl, as told by its master to the rescuing steamer Strathowen:
I was lately the skipper of the ‘Pearl’ schooner, 150 tons, as tight a little craft as ever sailed the seas, with a crew of six men. We were bound from the Mauritius for Rangoon in ballast to return with paddy, and had put in at Galle for water. Three days out we fell becalmed in the bay (lat. 8°50’N., long 84°5′ E.). On the 10th of May, about 5 p.m.,–eight bells I know had gone,–we sighted a two-masted screw on our port quarter, about five or six miles off; very soon after, as we lay motionless, a great mass rose slowly out of the sea about half a mile off on our larboard side, and remained spread out, as it were, and stationary; it looked like the back of a huge whale, but it sloped less, and was of a brownish colour; even at that distance it seemed much longer than our craft, and it seemed to be basking in the sun. ‘What’s that?’ I sung out to the mate. ‘Blest if I knows; barring its size, colour and shape, it might be a whale,’ replied Tom Scott; ‘And it ain’t the sea sarpent,’ said one of the crew, ‘for he’s too round for that ere crittur.’ I went into the cabin for my rifle, and as I was preparing to fire, Bill Darling, a Newfoundlander, came on deck, and, looking at the monster, exclaimed, putting up his hand, ‘Have a care, master; that ere is a squid, and will capsize us if you hurt him.’ Smiling at the idea, I let fly and hit him, and with that he shook; there was a great ripple all round him, and he began to move. ‘Out with all your axes and knives,’ shouted Bill, ‘and cut at any part of him that comes aboard; look alive, and Lord help us!’ Not aware of the danger, and never having seen or heard of such a monster, I gave no orders, and it was no use touching the helm or ropes to get out of the way. By this time three of the crew, Bill included, had found axes, and one a rusty cutlass, and all were looking over the ship’s side at the advancing monster. We could now see a huge oblong mass moving by jerks just under the surface of the water, and an enormous train following; the oblong body was at least half the size of our vessel in length and just as thick; the wake or train might have been one hundred feet long. In the time that I have taken to write this, the brute struck us, and the ship quivered under the thud; in another moment, monstrous arms like trees seized the vessel and she heeled over; in another second the monster was aboard, squeezed in between the two masts, Bill screaming ‘Slash for your lives;’ but all our slashing was of no avail, for the brute, holding on by his arms, slipped his vast body overboard, and pulled the vessel down with him on her beam-ends; we were thrown into the water at once, and just as I went over I caught sight of one of the crew, either Bill or Tom Fielding, squashed up between the masts and one of those awful arms; for a few seconds our ship lay on her beam-ends, then filled and went down; another of the crew must have been sucked down, for you only picked up five; the rest you know. I can’t tell who ran up the ensign.
“This tale has never been confirmed,” notes Bernard Heuvelmans, “and it may well have been an opportune hoax, for the Strathowen is not to be found in Lloyd’s Register for that year.”
At noon on a spring day in Paris some years ago, an old motor truck broke down in the center of the Place de l’Opéra, requiring the driver to spend a half hour under it to make the repair. After apologizing for the trouble he had caused the policemen who had been directing the traffic around him, the truckman drove away — to collect several thousand dollars from friends who had bet that he could not lie on his back for 30 minutes at the busiest hour in the middle of the busiest street in Paris. He was Horace De Vere Cole, England’s celebrated practical joker.
— Collier’s, 1948
In 1897, con artist Soapy Smith opened a telegraph office in Skagway, Alaska. For five dollars, new arrivals in the Klondike Gold Rush could send 10 words to loved ones anywhere in the world, informing them of their safe arrival and imminent riches.
No one noticed that the cable was simply nailed to the back of the building, and that its other end disappeared in the waters of Skagway Bay.
Telegraph lines did not reach Skagway until 1901.
In 1936, Democrats took over Rhode Island’s state senate and began giving out $100 bonuses to veterans. Concerned at this liberality, a Republican quietly recommended a bonus for Sgt. Evael O.W. Tnesba of the Twelfth Machine Gun Battalion. A Democrat seconded the bill and it passed immediately, sending a ripple of laughter through the chamber.
Sensing they’d been had, the Democrats referred the bill to a committee for study. There they discovered that Evael O.W. Tnesba spelled backward is Absent W.O. Leave.
“It is true that members of the Rhode Island General Assembly, except dual office holders, get only $300 a year each for their legislative labors,” opined the Providence Journal. “But even for this modest sum they ought to do better than to vote gratuities to non-existent war veterans.”
In 1929 a well-dressed man approached Tony and Nick Fortunato, owners of New York’s Fortunato Fruit Company. He identified himself as T. Remington Grenfell, vice president of the Grand Central Holding Corporation, and he told the brothers that Grand Central Station had decided to shut down its information booth. If they could come up with $100,000, the first year’s rent, they could take over the booth and convert it into a fruit stand in the heart of the busy train station.
Overjoyed, the brothers brought $100,000 to the corporation’s offices. There they met the president, Wilson A. Blodgett, who accepted their money and gave them a contract saying they could take over the booth on April 1. But when they arrived at the station to begin renovations, they found employees operating the booth as normal, and when they began to argue officials kicked them out of the station. They returned to the Grand Central Holding Company but found an empty suite.
The Fortunato brothers never got their money back, and Grenfell and Blodgett, whoever they were, were never caught. But for years afterward the brothers would visit Grand Central Station regularly to castigate the employees there — a spectacle that itself became a small-time tourist attraction.